The Science of Mental Wellness
The Wellness Brain
Wellness practices have existed for centuries and millennia in promoting health, harmony, and balance. However, until the past few decades, we were unable to provide a “hard science” explanation for their underlying benefits. We now have substantial scientific evidence explaining how wellness habits promote our brain to change and rewire itself through a lifelong process termed Neuroplasticity.
Our brain functions in a nonlinear (inverted-U shaped) relationship with stress level, such that optimal performance is achieved at moderate levels of stress.
Neuroplasticity depends on experience. Fundamentally, we need to engage in experiences that provide sensory, emotional, and intellectual arousal. Our brain functions in a nonlinear (inverted-U shaped) relationship with stress level, such that optimal performance is achieved at moderate levels of stress (Fig. 5). Too little or too much arousal impairs functioning. It is important that we push and challenge ourselves to moderate levels of stress, past our natural comfort zone, to promote neuroplasticity in favor of growth and resilience (Fig 6.). Equally important is subsequently getting sufficient rest, nourishment, and rejuvenation necessary for the recovery period. The deliberate and active maintenance of this perpetual back-and-forth state of balance between optimal stress and restorative rest is key for driving positive neuroplastic changes. Additionally, it is paramount that we preserve our health by avoiding and minimizing burnout and exposure to harmful and toxic substances. Committing to a proactive lifestyle which incorporates a positive mindset, emotional awareness, and daily wellness habits will foster lifelong growth.
When we exercise, our brain is the commander-in-chief directing activity in our heart, lungs, and muscles to mobilize our body for action, empowering us with a sense of influence over our environment and surrounding conditions.
Aerobic exercise is fundamentally important for neurogenesis and proper maintenance of our body’s physiologic “fight/flight/freeze” stress response. Our brain functions most effectively when our mind perceives a position of authority and control over our body and environment. When we exercise, our brain is the commander-in-chief directing activity in our heart, lungs, and muscles to mobilize our body for action, empowering us with a sense of influence over our environment and surrounding conditions. On the other hand, when we are under acute and chronic stress, our environment is the initiator that triggers and sends our body into an activated state. Consequently, instead of feeling empowered and in control, we may soon find ourselves in a state of distress where we perceive a sense of being acted upon by our external environment, furthering the harmful stress cycle. Aerobic exercise enables our brain and body to sustain and overcome the negative effects of acute and chronic stress through natural physiological processes that are otherwise switched off during prolonged physical inactivity and a sedentary lifestyle.
Fostering emotional awareness, cultivating gratitude, and maintaining a positive mindset are integral to mental wellness. Developing trust, security, and love in interdependent relationships are foundational to nurturing our brain’s development. Committing regularly to activities such as journaling, volunteering, social bonding, and psychotherapy drives positive neuroplasticity. Emotional awareness and attunement integrate our brain’s structural and functional organization, building the foundation for healthy thriving relationships.
Engaging in activities that stimulate our senses, challenge our cognitive and motor abilities, and enhance our social interactions are indispensable for maintaining positive neural changes throughout our lifetime. Playing a musical instrument, dancing, aromatherapy, traveling, hiking, and volunteering enrich not only our lives, but also our brain’s development. Activities that are novel and challenging in nature, literally and figuratively, further enhance neuroplasticity.
Meditation induces large scale neuroplasticity to promote higher level development in cortical areas, especially the PFC. Different types of meditation practices exist with each varying in the brain regions that are activated, eliciting distinct neural changes and corresponding benefits. Mindfulness meditation cultivates nonjudgmental awareness, discipline, attention control, and emotional regulation. Transcendental meditation promotes calmness, restful alertness, and heightened self-awareness. Loving-kindness and compassion meditation foster selflessness, empathy, and positive relationships.
Nutrition and Inflammation [16,17,18,19]
Chronic inflammation is one of the main underlying causes of mental illness. Our diet and gut microbiome have important roles in affecting our bodies’ inflammatory processes, which impact our brain’s health in numerous ways. Dietary modification incorporating caloric restriction, intermittent fasting, anti-inflammatory foods, antioxidants, supplements (omega-3 fatty acids, N-acetylcysteine, phosphatidylserine), and prebiotics/probiotics help support and promote the brain’s health and drive positive plasticity.
Physical Touch [20,21]
Physical touch from another person in the context of comfort and safety provides relief, healing, and pleasure. Massage therapy releases into our body’s circulation natural hormones for analgesia, love, and bonding, a physiologic process vital for combating stress and promoting health.
Our breathing holds the key to reducing stress and achieving relaxation.
Relaxation and Deep Breathing [22,23,24]
Respiration is the only autonomic function we have direct control over. Thus, our breathing holds the key to reducing stress and achieving relaxation. Physical exercises that involve controlled breathing techniques such as yoga and tai chi help us endure chronic stress. Deep breathing activates the vagus nerve which is a direct channel to the “rest/digest” branch of the nervous system. Vagal activation counteracts and turns down the stress-inducing activity of the “fight/flight/freeze” branch of the nervous system, favoring healthy neuroplastic changes.
Sleep is essential for overall health, providing vital rest and restoration for the mind and body. It is particularly necessary for plasticity associated with memory processing. Sleep is also critical for the maintenance of “house-keeping” functions, particularly the removal of waste, via the recently discovered glymphatic waste clearance system.
Smoking, alcohol use, and drug abuse have negative effects on neuroplasticity. It is critically important to moderate, minimize, or avoid the exposure to addictive and harmful substances, especially during childhood and adolescence, when drug addictions may potentially become more permanent.
We all have the ability to survive and thrive in this world. We all possess the most useful and powerful tool in the universe — our human brain.
Committing to a life of mental wellness is instrumental in today’s world. The world we live in constantly demands change and progress from us both as individuals and as a society. In order to meet the evolving needs of our present and the future, we must harness our brain’s plasticity towards positive growth.
Evolutionarily, our human species’ rise to the top was due to the brain’s capacity for change. Neuroplasticity enabled higher brain regions and functions to emerge, ultimately conferring upon us our quintessential human capabilities of consciousness, language, and toolmaking. Our newfound capacities gave us the advantage to better problem solve, communicate, and cooperate, thus enhancing our survival, paving the way towards the advancement of humanity.
In the history of our civilization, we have traversed two major disruptive changes in our social evolution. The Agricultural Revolution transformed us from exploratory hunter-gatherers to enterprising farmers and settlers. The Industrial Revolution then propelled us forward from our simple and rural lifestyle toward our urban, fast-paced, commercial way of living. Now, we find ourselves navigating through the midst of our third revolutionary period in the Computer and Information Age. The Digital Revolution has empowered us with the once unimaginable ability to access any information and communicate with anyone at any given time, quite literally from our fingertips. Our advanced technologies provide us with endless functional capabilities in everyday life.
In our ever-changing environment, we also face mounting pressures that threaten our state of wellness and well-being. In addition to the fears and concerns of machines replacing human jobs, pervasive world stressors abound, such as global warming, loss of biodiversity and extinction, overpopulation, resource scarcity, political tension, terrorism, and nuclear threat, further straining our collective psyche.
We can ascend our personal hierarchy of needs, moving from basic survival towards social connectedness, emotional fulfillment, creative expression, aesthetic gratification, intellectual stimulation, and a greater purpose in life.
We all have the ability to survive and thrive in this world. We all possess the most useful and powerful tool in the universe — our human brain. As we learn more about the complexities of the brain, we can better tap its immense potential to orchestrate neuroplastic changes in favor of developing and enhancing higher brain regions. We can ascend our personal hierarchy of needs, moving from basic survival towards social connectedness, emotional fulfillment, creative expression, aesthetic gratification, intellectual stimulation, and a greater purpose in life.
Wellness-based neuroplasticity enables us to achieve self-actualization and ultimately undergo a transformation towards self-transcendence. Only when we achieve this dimension of well-being are we able to set aside our own needs to help others fulfill their needs. To this end, we will be able to create a sustainable, integrated, and harmonious path toward personal and global wellness.